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5 Teams Aim for the Moon This Year—and the $20 Million Google Lunar XPrize

The TeamIndus ECA rover. Image Credit: TeamIndus

 
Though space agencies from the Soviet Union, the United States, and China have notched Moon landings, no private company or organization has ever managed to duplicate the task. No private effort has even managed to achieve a launch manifest for a rocket—until now.

The Google Lunar XPrize is a competition to land a spacecraft on the surface of the Moon, have it travel 500 meters, and provide video and imagery of the whole affair. The prize for being first: $20 million. The second-place team gets $5 million, and another $5 million goes to assorted prizes. 

In 2007, more than 30 teams registered to compete for that $30 million. Today, only five remain. Each one has a launch manifest (a scheduled ride) on one of four different rockets. To remain in the competition and win some part of the $30 million bounty, the missions must launch this year.

Chanda Gonzales-Mowrer, senior director of the Google Lunar XPrize, tells mental_floss, “What we are the most excited about is the fact that all five teams are approaching this challenge in unique ways, and we were thrilled to have five finalist teams come from all parts of the world.”

The race is fraught with perils, and despite having been manifested for flight, even reaching the launch pad will require the full measure of each team’s engineering know-how. Still, the Google Lunar XPrize foundation is confident that this is the year. “We are very optimistic that at least one team will launch by the December 31, 2017 deadline,” says Gonzales-Mowrer.

Meet the five teams to learn more about their mission goals and specs.

1. MOON EXPRESS

An illustration of the Moon Express MX-1E lander approaching the lunar surface. Image Credit: Moon Express

 
In 2010, Bob Richards, Naveen Jain, and Barney Pell formed Moon Express with the goal of applying the Silicon Valley philosophy of moving fast and iterating to the Moon problem. They’ve certainly applied Silicon Valley dollars, garnering $45 million so far in a fundraising effort that goes far beyond the competition. The company intends to establish a resource mining operation on the lunar surface, seeking such elements as oxygen and hydrogen that might be converted to water, breathable air, and used as an oxidizer for spacecraft propellant. Jain has described the Moon as the “eighth continent,” and he certainly has a point: At 37.9 million square miles, the lunar surface is smaller than Asia but larger than Africa.

The mission is set to launch this year atop a New Zealand-built Electron rocket from the company Rocket Lab USA. The Moon Express lander is called MX-1E, and it will perform a powered landing on the lunar surface, using its thrusters to perform a series of “micro hops” to cross the finish line. The spacecraft will be powered with hydrogen peroxide propellant—the same stuff that’s likely in your medicine cabinet, H2O2. Why hydrogen peroxide? Because hydrogen and oxygen harvested from the Moon might one day be able to be refined to fuel a future Moon Express spacecraft.

Such thinking is in keeping with the competition’s long-term goals, explains Gonzales-Mowrer, which includes stimulating "the larger conversation about building a lunar economy and bringing commercial enterprise to the Moon."

2. SPACEIL

An artist's rendition of the SpaceIL combo lander/hopper. Image Credit: SpaceIL

 
Like MoonEx, SpaceIL is no garage operation. The nonprofit organization is fueled by a $36 million budget. Their goal isn’t mineral mining, however, but inspiring an “Apollo effect”—that is spurring a STEM renaissance in Israel, where the company is based. To some extent, the competition is a race to be the fourth nation to plant a flag on the Moon, with Japan and India competing against Israel.

SpaceIL was founded by Eran Privman, Yariv Bash, Kfir Damari, and Yonatan Winetraub—a deep bench of electrical and computer engineers. It was the first team in the Google Lunar XPrize to be manifested on a launch vehicle: a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. To travel the 500 meters, their spacecraft, which vaguely resembles a frog, will not roll on tracks or wheels, or skip along gently, but rather will make a single, giant hop to the finish line.

3. SYNERGY MOON

A March 2014 test of an Interorbital Systems Neptune rocket with a Synergy Moon payload aboard. Image Credit: Synergy Moon/Interorbital Systems

 
Led by Nebojsa Stanojevic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, 15 countries are represented on the Synergy Moon team. Their hope is that their success thus far—and hopefully achievements to come—will foster other such cooperative international efforts, and prove what is possible when one approaches the world “with the creative drive of an artist and the problem-solving skills of an engineer,” they say.

Their pair of lunar vehicles are called the Tesla prospector rover and the Tesla surveyor rover. Though Synergy Moon has kept recent details and designs of the rovers close to its chest, in keeping with the artistic and international engagement aspects of the mission, they plan for “tourists, scientists, and prospectors to take control of the rovers for virtual excursions on the Moon,” according to their website. The robots will be launched on a Neptune rocket by Interorbital Systems. Upon arrival at the Moon, a small “tube sat” will deploy from the cruiser to establish communications, and the lander will begin its ascent. Once safely settled in Moon dust, the rovers will get to work, one returning high-resolution images, the other sniffing the lunar regolith for resources for eventual harvest and refinement.

4. TEAM INDUS

Members of TeamIndus with their lander. Image Credit: XPrize Foundation

Last year Team Indus won a $1 million milestone prize for its lander technology—money that has thrust the privately funded team forward in its likelihood of reaching the lunar surface. This is the only team from India, and, like SpaceIL, they hope their mission will be a sort of robotic ambassador for its country that will pay dividends by engaging and invigorating citizens, private industry, and even the Indian government, whose space agency is already making great strides at Mars. Rahul Narayan, a software engineer and entrepreneur from Delhi, is the mission’s leader.

The Team Indus rover ECA—seen at top—has a passing resemblance to Nintendo’s Robotic Operating Buddy. The vehicle is solar powered, all-aluminum, and has four-wheel drive, and among its scientific payload is a high definition camera made by the French Space Agency. The rover will land autonomously in the Sea of Showers, roll away from the lander platform, link up with Earth, and begin transmitting. It is a straightforward lunar lander and rover—to the extent that it’s possible for any craft operating on the Moon to be described as such.

5. HAKUTO

Hakuto is Japanese for “white rabbit,” and refers to a Japanese story about a rabbit that can be seen in the crater shadows of the moon. The description is apt, too, as the Hakuto rover, shiny and sharp, weighs less than four kilograms, making it the world’s smallest planetary exploration rover.

“To reduce launch cost,” Tomoya Mori of Hakuto tells mental_floss, “we need to make our rover as light and small as possible. At the same time, however, the rover must meet the requirements to successfully accomplish the mission.” They achieved this miniaturization using microrobotics technology and commercial, off-the-shelf products.

Under mission leader Takeshi Hakamada, the mission has forged partnerships with nine players in the aerospace industry, who are assisting with everything from instrumentation to orbital design. Notably, Hakuto will catch a ride to the Moon on the same rocket as Team Indus—an Indian Space Research Organization rocket called the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle.

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10 Astonishing Things You Should Know About the Milky Way
Anne Dirkse, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Anne Dirkse, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Our little star and the tiny planets that circle it are part of a galaxy called the Milky Way. Its name comes from the Greek galaxias kyklos ("milky circle") and Latin via lactea ("milky road"). Find a remote area in a national park, miles from the nearest street light, and you'll see exactly why the name makes sense and what all the fuss is about. Above is not a sky of black, but a luminous sea of whites, blues, greens, and tans. Here are a few things you might not know about our spiraling home in the universe.

1. THE MILKY WAY IS GIGANTIC.

The Milky Way galaxy is about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilometers (about 621,371,000,000,000,000 miles) across. Even traveling at the speed of light, it would still take you well over 100,000 years to go from one end of the galaxy to the other. So it's big. Not quite as big as space itself, which is "vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big," as Douglas Adams wrote, but respectably large. And that's just one galaxy. Consider how many galaxies there are in the universe: One recent estimate says 2 trillion.

2. IT'S JAM-PACKED WITH CELESTIAL STUFF.

artist's illustration of the milky way galaxy and its center
An artist's concept of the Milky Way and the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A* at its core.
ESA–C. Carreau

The Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy composed of an estimated 300 billion stars, along with dust, gas, and celestial phenomena such as nebulae, all of which orbits around a hub of sorts called the Galactic Center, with a supermassive black hole called Sagittarius A* (pronounced "A-star") at its core. The bar refers to the characteristic arrangement of stars at the interior of the galaxy, with interstellar gas essentially being channeled inward to feed an interstellar nursery. There are four spiral arms of the galaxy, with the Sun residing on the inner part of a minor arm called Orion. We're located in the boondocks of the Milky Way, but that is OK. There is definitely life here, but everywhere else is a question mark. For all we know, this might be the galactic Paris.

3. FOR A SPIRAL GALAXY, IT'S PRETTY TYPICAL …

If you looked at all the spiral galaxies in the local volume of the universe, the Milky Way wouldn't stand out as being much different than any other. "As galaxies go, the Milky Way is pretty ordinary for its type," Steve Majewski, a professor of astronomy at the University of Virginia and the principal investigator on the Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment (APOGEE), tells Mental Floss. "It's got a pretty regular form. It's got its usual complement of star clusters around it. It's got a supermassive black hole in the center, which most galaxies seem to indicate they have. From that point of view, the Milky Way is a pretty run-of-the-mill spiral galaxy."

4. …AND YET IT STANDS OUT AMONG ALL GALAXIES.

On the other hand, he tells Mental Floss, spiral galaxies in general tend to be larger than most other types of galaxies. "If you did a census of all the galaxies in the universe, the Milky Way would seem rather unusual because it is very big, our type being one of the biggest kinds of galaxies that there are in the universe." From a human perspective, the most important thing about the Milky Way is that it definitely managed to produce life. If they exist, the creatures in Andromeda, the galaxy next door (see #9), probably feel the same way about their own.

5. FIGURING OUT ITS STRUCTURE FROM THE INSIDE IS A CHALLENGE.


John McSporran, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

We have a very close-up view of the phenomena and forces at work in the Milky Way because we live inside of it, but that internal perspective places astronomers at a disadvantage when it comes to determining a galactic pattern. "We have a nice view of the Andromeda galaxy because we can see the whole thing laid out in front of us," Majewski says. "We don't have that opportunity in the Milky Way."

To figure out its structure, astronomers have to think like band members during a football halftime show. Though spectators in the stands can easily see the letters and shapes being made on the field by the marchers, the band can't see the shapes they are making. Rather, they can only work together in some coordinated way, moving to make these patterns and motions on the field. So it is with telescopes and stars.

6. INTERSTELLAR DUST BLOCKS OUR VIEW OF SOME PARTS OF THE GALAXY.

Interstellar dust further stymies astronomers. "That dust blocks our light, our view of the more distant parts of the Milky Way," Majewski says. "There are areas of the galaxy that are relatively obscured from view because they are behind huge columns of dust that we can't see through in the optical wavelengths that our eyes work in." To ameliorate this problem, astronomers sometimes work in longer wavelengths such as radio or infrared, which lessen the effects of the dust.

7. THE MILKY WAY SPINS, BUT ITS SPEED DOESN'T ADD UP …

Astronomers can make pretty reasonable estimates of the mass of the galaxy by the amount of light they can see. They can count the galaxy's stars and calculate how much those stars should weigh. They can account for all the dust in the galaxy and all of the gas. And when they tally the mass of everything they can see, they find that it is far short of what is needed to account for the gravity that causes the Milky Way to spin.

In short, our Sun is about two-thirds of the way from the center of the galaxy, and astronomers know that it goes around the galaxy at about 144 miles per second. "If you calculate it based on the amount of matter interior to the orbit of the Sun, how fast we should be going around, the number you should get is around 150 or 160 kilometers [93–99 miles] per second," Majewski says. "Further out, the stars are rotating even faster than they should if you just account for what we call luminous matter. Clearly there is some other substance in the Milky Way exerting a gravitational effect. We call it dark matter."

8. … AND WE BLAME DARK MATTER FOR THAT.

Dark matter is a big problem in galactic studies. "In the Milky Way, we study it by looking at the orbits of stars and star clusters and satellite galaxies, and then trying to figure out how much mass do we need interior to the orbit of that thing to get it moving at the speed that we can measure," Majewski says. "And so by doing this kind of analysis for objects at different radii across the galaxy, we actually have a fairly good idea of the distribution of the dark matter in the Milky Way—and yet we still have no idea what the dark matter is."

9. THE MILKY WAY IS ON A COLLISION COURSE WITH ANDROMEDA. BUT DON'T PANIC.

andromeda galaxy
The Andromeda galaxy
ESA/Hubble & NASA

Sometime in the next 4 or 5 billion years, the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies will smash into each other. The two galaxies are about the same size and have about the same number of stars, but there is no cause for alarm. "Even though there are 300 billion stars in our galaxy and a comparable number, or maybe more, in Andromeda, when they collide together, not a single star is expected to hit another star. The space between stars is that vast," Majewski says.

10. WE'RE THROWING EVERYTHING WE HAVE AT STUDYING IT.

There are countless spacecraft and telescopes studying the Milky Way. Most famous is the Hubble Space Telescope, while other space telescopes such as Chandra, Spitzer, and Kepler are also returning data to help astronomers unlock the mysteries of our swirling patch of stars. The next landmark telescope in development is NASA's James Webb Space Telescope. It should finally launch in 2019. Meanwhile, such ambitious projects as APOGEE are working out the structure and evolution of our spiral home by doing "galactic archaeology." APOGEE is a survey of the Milky Way using spectroscopy, measuring the chemical compositions of hundreds of thousands of stars across the galaxy in great detail. The properties of stars around us are fossil evidence of their formation, which, when combined with their ages, helps astronomers understand the timeline and evolution of the galaxy we call home. 

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Mysterious 'Hypatia Stone' Is Like Nothing Else in Our Solar System
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In 1996, Egyptian geologist Aly Barakat discovered a tiny, one-ounce stone in the eastern Sahara. Ever since, scientists have been trying to figure out where exactly the mysterious pebble originated. As Popular Mechanics reports, it probably wasn't anywhere near Earth. A new study in Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta finds that the micro-compounds in the rock don't match anything we've ever found in our solar system.

Scientists have known for several years that the fragment, known as the Hypatia stone, was extraterrestrial in origin. But this new study finds that it's even weirder than we thought. Led by University of Johannesburg geologists, the research team performed mineral analyses on the microdiamond-studded rock that showed that it is made of matter that predates the existence of our Sun or any of the planets in the solar system. And, its chemical composition doesn't resemble anything we've found on Earth or in comets or meteorites we have studied.

Lead researcher Jan Kramers told Popular Mechanics that the rock was likely created in the early solar nebula, a giant cloud of homogenous interstellar dust from which the Sun and its planets formed. While some of the basic materials in the pebble are found on Earth—carbon, aluminum, iron, silicon—they exist in wildly different ratios than materials we've seen before. Researchers believe the rock's microscopic diamonds were created by the shock of the impact with Earth's atmosphere or crust.

"When Hypatia was first found to be extraterrestrial, it was a sensation, but these latest results are opening up even bigger questions about its origins," as study co-author Marco Andreoli said in a press release.

The study suggests the early solar nebula may not have been as homogenous as we thought. "If Hypatia itself is not presolar, [some of its chemical] features indicate that the solar nebula wasn't the same kind of dust everywhere—which starts tugging at the generally accepted view of the formation of our solar system," Kramer said.

The researchers plan to further probe the rock's origins, hopefully solving some of the puzzles this study has presented.

[h/t Popular Mechanics]

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